Congress Eyes Fiscal Year 2021 Budget

Though both the Senate and House of Representatives are observing a two-week recess, members of the two chambers have continued working over the last week to craft must-pass legislation that authorizes and appropriates the federal budget for the 2021 fiscal year (FY). The Senate has moved its version of the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to the floor for consideration before all 100 members. The House passed its version of the FY2021 NDAA through the Armed Services Committee and is looking to take floor action soon. The House Appropriations Subcommittees on State and Foreign Operations and Defense marked up their FY2021 budgets as well.

Due to a predetermined budget agreement, both chambers’ NDAA bills authorize the Pentagon to spend $740.5 billion in the coming fiscal year that begins in October. The House’s State and Foreign Operations budget endows the State Department, USAID, and other diplomacy initiatives with $65.87 billion in funding. Because of Congress’s “power of the purse,” lawmakers use authorization and appropriation bills to help dictate US federal policy on a host of issues, and this year is no different. The Democrat-controlled House’s NDAA and State and Foreign Operations appropriations bills prioritize different policies from what Republicans in the Senate majority might prefer, and vice-versa. However, a number of provisions related to the Middle East and North Africa enjoy bipartisan support. Below is an outline of relevant policies and funding amounts related to countries throughout the region.

House NDAA

Counter-Islamic State Operations in Iraq and Syria. The House NDAA provides $500,000,000 for a train-and-equip fund used to counter the threat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in both Iraq and Syria. The bill also prohibits US funds from being used to provide weapons or any form of support to IS and other organizations considered  terrorist like Lebanese Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al-Shabab, or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Syria. The legislation authorizes the Department of Defense to continue providing support to groups of the Syrian opposition that have already been vetted by the US government. The bill also mandates that the Secretary of Defense must certify to Congress that no US military forces are used for the extraction, transport, transfer, or sale of oil from Syria. This is in response to President Donald Trump’s assertion that US troops were left in Syria to “secure the oil.”

Iraq. House lawmakers extended the authorization that allows the Pentagon to support operations and activities of the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq. The bill authorizes $20,000,000 per year for the next two fiscal years to support the mission.

Israel. The Pentagon is authorized to spend $300,000,000 on miscellaneous cooperation programs with Israel.

Amendments. Hundreds of amendments were proposed or are expected to be proposed when the NDAA moves to the floor for consideration. On Yemen, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) successfully added language that would prohibit the Department of Defense from providing logistical support for Saudi-led coalition airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Khanna and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Washington) also announced they would be introducing an amendment to attach language demonstrating congressional support for the UN-led process for ending the war in Yemen. Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colorado) and Mike Conaway (R-Texas) each introduced amendments that would express the sense of Congress that the Iraqi Kurdistan Peshmerga is a valued partner in the fight against IS and that the United States and Qatar have built a strong and enduring strategic partnership.

Senate NDAA

Counter-IS Campaign, Iraq, and Syria. The Senate’s version of the NDAA is similar to the House’s in many regards, but there are some differences. For example, the Senate’s bill allocates $322,500,000 for the counter-IS train-and-equip fund. It also provides for continued support of Syrian opposition figures, though with additional stipulations. For Iraq, the NDAA demands a report about what the central government is doing to rein in the Popular Mobilization Forces operating throughout the country. Furthermore, the bill authorizes funding for the Office of Security Cooperation like its House counterpart, but only for an amount of $15,000,000 that is good for fiscal year 2021 alone.

Egypt. Senators wrote in a provision mandating that the secretary of defense must notify Congress at least 30 days before executing a plan to remove US forces from the UN peacekeeping mission in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. This is in direct response to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s proposal to withdraw troops from the mission.

Israel. There are many more provisions in the Senate’s version of the NDAA that pertain to US policy toward Israel. First, the bill, if passed as is, would establish a US-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group tasked with developing a report to identify the needs of each country’s military capabilities and improve on them. The Senate NDAA also allows for the Defense Department to provide up to $73,000,000 and $50,000,000 to Israel to use for its Iron Dome and David’s Sling weapons systems, respectively. Another $77,000,000 may be provided to support Israel’s Arrow 3 Upper Tier Interceptor Program.

Turkey. The Senate NDAA authorizes the Air Force to utilize the F-35 fighter jets that were intended for Turkey but not delivered because Ankara was suspended from the F-35 program.

Amendments. Senate consideration of the NDAA will not yield as many amendments, but there are a few notable ones that would possibly receive consideration before the bill’s final passage. Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) introduced an amendment that would see the United States purchasing Ankara’s S-400 missile defense system as a way to bring Turkey back into compliance with US law and shore up bilateral and multilateral relations with the country. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) also successfully included an amendment based on a previous piece of legislation he introduced known as the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) spearheaded an amendment that he and his Democratic colleagues—and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont)—intend to introduce during the next round of floor debate. This amendment would prohibit the “use of funds to deploy defense articles, services, or training to certain annexed territories in the West Bank or to facilitate annexation of such territories.”

House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations

Egypt. Cairo will receive $1.425 billion in foreign military financing (FMF) guarantees and economic support funds (ESF). Twenty percent of Egypt’s FMF aid is subject to governance and human rights conditions and reporting requirements, although all but five percent of this can be provided if the secretary of state waives the requirement.

Jordan. Jordan will receive $1.52 billion in FMF and ESF assistance.

Israel. The FY2021 budget legislation, keeping in line with previous years’ legislation, offers a great deal to Israel. In addition to satisfying the $3.3 billion agreed to in the 2016 memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between Israel and the United States, the bill also calls on the Arab League to normalize relations with Israel, provides aid to Israel for resettling refugees, and penalizes organizations like the United Nations or Palestinian entities for engaging in activities that Congress views as singling out or unjustly targeting Israel. The bill also allocates $50,000,000 over five years for a program previously introduced as the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act.

Palestine. As always, the budget legislation includes a host of provisions that severely curtail Palestinians’ ability to confront the Israeli occupation or mobilize for support among members of the international community. From Washington’s point of view, Palestinians cannot unilaterally declare or pursue statehood, raise Israeli crimes to the International Criminal Court, provide social welfare payments to many types of prisoners or to families of prisoners, or form any kind of unity government with certain factions in the Palestinian political scene without losing access to US funds. The roughly $225 million in assistance that is provided by the legislation is subject to much higher levels of scrutiny than what is expected from neighboring Israel or most other states and it is largely provided in a manner that benefits Israeli security.

Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen. All of these states are entitled to US assistance per the language of the legislation, but at this point the amounts remain unspecified, though each country’s funding is subject to certain conditions and reporting requirements. Iraq and Syria would ostensibly have access to $700 million in funding for a counter-IS train-and-equip fund set forth by the defense appropriations bill.

Tunisia. Tunis is slated to receive $191,400,000 in US assistance.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Expressing the Sense of the Senate on US-Israel cooperation on Precision-Guided Munitions. Senator Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) introduced S. Res. 640, expressing the sense of the Senate that the Pentagon “should take further measures to expedite deliveries of precision-guided munitions to Israel.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Angry with Pentagon for Maintaining Turkey’s Role in F-35 Supply Chain. This week, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and chided him for the perceived lack of urgency in abiding by a provision of the FY2020 NDAA that orders Ankara to be cut out of the F-35 program. Despite the fact that Pentagon officials had set March 2020 as the end date for the transition process, Turkish companies continue to produce parts necessary for F-35 aircraft.

Reps. Engel and Sires Issue Statement after Egypt Releases American. Democratic Reps. Eliot Engel (New York) and Albio Sires (New Jersey) issued a statement this week after news that Egypt released American citizen Mohamed Amashah from detention. While the duo welcomed Cairo’s decision to free Amashah, they also noted that there remain thousands of political detainees in Egyptian prisons and they called on the government to release all those unjustly held for political or other reasons.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Israeli and American Legislators against Annexation. On July 1, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) joined a pair of Israeli members of the Knesset in a virtual webinar to discuss how legislators in both countries are standing up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank and Jordan Valley.

Van Hollen said annexation would harm US national security interests globally and shared US-Israeli interests in the Middle East. The senator added that the move would harm Israel’s status as a “Jewish and democratic state” and would undermine the shared values that serve as the basis of the US-Israel relationship. For her part, Rep. Schakowsky repeated many of her remarks from an event she participated in last week with the Israel Policy Forum during which she said annexation would hurt US-Israeli relations. In short, she tried to thread the needle between criticizing annexation while refusing to support any initiatives to substantively deter Israel from pursuing the policy.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Special Representative Hook Rounds out Foreign Travel with Visit to Austria. Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, bounced around the Middle East last week in an attempt to mobilize international support for maximum pressure on Iran. He concluded that trip by traveling to Austria to meet with officials from the Austrian government and the International Atomic Energy Agency that is headquartered in Vienna.

US Officials Talk Militia Demobilization with Libya’s GNA, LNA. As last week’s report noted, officials from Washington met virtually with members of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to discuss, among other things, the process of demobilizing the countless number of militias operating in the country. These officials continued that effort, holding a dialogue with General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

2) Department of Defense

Pentagon Appears to Show Qatar Buying More F-15 Combat Aircraft. Recent reporting appears to confirm that Qatar plans to buy a greater number of F-15 fighter jets than officially contracted. The reporting explores the discrepancies between the number of aircraft officially contracted (36) and those to which the Pentagon has repeatedly referred in recent weeks and months (48). The foreign military sales process is a lengthy one and Doha is actually cleared to purchase a total of 72 of these jets, so it is not inconceivable that the final number increases before the process is complete.

Israel Seeking an Advance on US Security Assistance. Israel has reportedly put together a plan to request an amendment to the foreign military financing (FMF) agreement outlined in the 2016 MOU. The MOU—which took effect in fiscal year 2019 and runs through the end of FY2028—phases out a provision that allows Israel to convert up to 26.3 percent of the FMF assistance to Israeli shekels to be spent on purchasing equipment from domestic Israeli firms. While the Israeli Defense Ministry cites economic uncertainty stemming from the coronavirus pandemic as its reasoning for the request, it is no secret that Israel would like to use more US money for the purchase of defense articles from Israeli defense companies. Thus, there is reason to believe the request is also a strategic one meant to offset the loss of domestic revenue by expediting the delivery of this money. However, it is unclear whether the Defense Department—which is responsible for executing the FMF program and jealously guards the interests of US defense firms—is willing to grant Israel’s extraordinary request.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here